Witness statement for seminar on South Africa

Denis MacShane MP was asked to give evidence as a witness to the "Witness Seminar on Britain and South Africa: Road to Democracy" organised by the London School of Economics. MacShane was active in the 1980s as an international trade union official in supporting the independent black trade unions in South Africa. This is a letter he sent to the inquiry.

Professor O Arne Westad
Houghton Street
London WC2A 2 AE

20 January 09

Dear Professor Westad,

It now transpires that I have to travel out of the UK en route to the Council of Europe this Friday so cannot attend your witness recording session.
I was very active in South Africa in the 1980s travelling regularly to work with black South African independent trade unions. I co-authored a book "Power! South Africa’s Black Unions" which came out in 1984. I worked for the International Metalworkers Federation based in Geneva which was the coordinating body for all industrial unions. American, German, Nordic and British unions all took an interest in supporting the development of independent trades unionism in South Africa. It was my view that the unions showed that apartheid could not co-exist with the nascent mass consumption capitalism under way in South Africa. By going on strike, by organising, by electing leaders like Cyril Ramaphosa, by rejecting fakes like Chief Buthelezi, by rejecting external Stalinist-Communist control of trade unions and by building extensive links with European and North American trade unions (a more powerful force in the 1980s than today), the black (including so-called coloured and Indian) workers demonstrated to a) themselves, b) the world, c) the South African white minority, their ability to take control of their own destiny.
The trade union movement in South Africa was inspired by Polish Solidarity which did not sit easily with the communist elements in the ANC. They also looked to Lula’s trade union movement in Brazil and to the 6-week general strike and occupation union movement in South Korea in 1987 which helped push the South Korean military out of government. We sought to use the ILO as a forum which even if South Africa was excluded from the UN could, by using its tri-partite nature, have an influence with employers in South Africa and multinational firms in Germany and Sweden, which had plants in South Africa where unions were allowed to organise.
I helped organise a top peer QC to go to South Africa to defend Moses Mayekiso, the metal union leader. Working with South African labour lawyers like Halton Cheadle, we sought to use the law to promote black worker rights.
I believe this helped create a space for a peaceful transition as trade union organisation eschewed violent, still less terrorist action.
In all this process we regarded the British government as an ally of apartheid and received no help or support at all from Mrs Thatcher’s administration. Whereas President Reagan named an African-American as Ambassador to South Africa, symbolic but important, and some European governments and diplomatic services were supportive of independent labour unions, the ideological venom against trade unions which lay at the heart of the Conservative government in the 1980s meant that British diplomats, whatever their personal views on apartheid, were irrelevant. Again and again, I asked black trade union leaders what contact they had with British diplomats, what invitations they received etc, and was told the UK embassy was seen as representing Mrs Thatcher and the Tory support for apartheid. Young Conservative leaders wore badges at the Tory Party conference saying "Hang Mandela" and Conservative MPs routinely described the ANC as a terrorist organisation.
Mrs Thatcher’s notorious Chequers’ meeting with apartheid leaders caused shock waves of disgust amongst black union leaders at a time when the US Congress was taking much tougher sanction action signed into law by President Reagan. Geoffrey Howe’s memoirs confirm the shame he felt at how even limited measures conceded by Mrs Thatcher at Commonwealth conferences were rendered nugatory by her later declarations and actions.
If you read Lord Howe’s memoirs (and I don’t doubt his personal decency and horror of racism), I think you will see that in all his discussions on South Africa he only met white South Africans. In the 1980s, the British government and the ruling Conservatives were seen as hostile to black trade unions and supporters, open or sotto voce, of apartheid. Britain could have been the world leader against apartheid but Mrs Thatcher was seen as apartheid’s best friend in the northern democracies.
Of course, once Mandela was released the story changed and, with Mrs Thatcher gone as well, it was possible for the UK government to present itself as a true supporter of black majority rights in South Africa. In all my work and visits there and considerable contacts with black South African union officials in the country and in Europe, the opposite was seen as the case and I consider British policy in support of apartheid in the 1980s to be a chapter of shame in the history of Britain’s foreign policy.
Can I suggest you contact Mr Don Stillman ( donstillan@igc.org) of Washington DC who was probably the most active international union official of that era in terms of visits and work with black labour leaders and officials in South Africa. Mr Stillman was a visiting fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford in the 1990s and has a mass of notes and memories on the work of international unions with South Africa. Although an American he worked closely with British trade union officials in the period you are covering.

Yours sincerely,

Rt Hon Dr Denis MacShane MP